HANG TIME SOUTHWEST — Apparently it was a bad year to coach your team to a franchise-record number of wins.
George Karl, Vinny Del Negro and Lionel Hollins each guided their respective clubs to new regular-season heights and now the coaches of the West’s playoff seeds 3, 4 and 5 all might be shown the door. Del Negro, who led the Los Angeles Clippers to a franchise-best 56 wins and a first-ever Pacific Division title, was first to be told he won’t be return.
Hollins, a lame-duck coach all season like Del Negro, led the Memphis Grizzlies to a club-record 56 wins and a first-ever Western Conference finals, and also likely sealed VDN’s fate with their first-round playoff win after the Clips held a 2-0 lead. Still, before Hollins could even reflect on the season that was, he was told by the organization’s new brass to talk to whichever team caught his fancy.
Then Thursday morning news hit that the Denver Nuggets will part ways with recently crowned Coach of the Year Karl after nine seasons and a franchise-record 57 wins. Karl, apparently unwilling to enter next season under the final year of his deal as his two counterparts did, has lost that power struggle and is out.
Hollins remains the lone wolf that isn’t all the way out. At least not yet as Grizz ownership/management figure out what they’re doing.
Now the 62-year-old Karl, who has twice turned back cancer, will be coaching somewhere else next season if he so chooses, perhaps even Del Negro’s attractive old gig with the Clips (considering Chauncey Billups‘ affinity for Karl and Chris Paul‘s trust in Billups, this could be a scenario that ensures the free agent CP3’s return to the Clips. Billups is also a free agent).
Karl dearly hoped that this season’s Nuggets would be the team to turn his inexplicable postseason fortunes around. In eight previous seasons under Karl, Denver had advanced past the first round just once. The 2008-09 team with Carmelo Anthony lost to the Lakers in the West finals. Before and after, with Melo and without, it’s been one-and-down.
This year was different, he wanted to believe. He had a complete team that played his up-tempo style to perfection and could run-and-gun any opponent off the floor. Ty Lawson and Danilo Gallinari were emerging as stars. Andre Iguodala provided the perimeter defense his teams lacked in the past. They had depth, they had belief and they had the West’s No. 3 seed.
They managed the latter despite Gallinari being lost for the season in early April to a torn ACL, and Lawson missed chunks of time late in the season with plantar fasciitis, making his playoff-readiness uncertain.
When the Nuggets — who recently lost general manager Masai Ujiri to the Raptors — visited the Dallas Mavericks on April 12, it was obvious how much Gallinari’s injury — and at the time Lawson’s ailing foot — had shook Karl’s faith in the possibility of a long playoff run.
“All year long the league has seen this, the national image of the Nuggets, that they’re not a playoff team, they’re not built for the playoffs, they can’t do this, they can’t do that,” Karl said, lamenting on the season-long criticisms of his club. “And I just wish we would be healthy just to show some people so we could tell them to shut up. Now I don’t know what percentage we’re down, but a full tank would be better than a three-quarter tank. The matchup that we get I think we’re going to be excited about and I’m confident that we’re going to play well in the playoffs.”
The matchup that they got was the upstart, sixth-seeded Golden State Warriors, who beat the shorthanded Nuggets in six and then put one heck of a scare into the eventual West champion San Antonio Spurs.
Who knows what happens if Gallinari is healthy and the Nuggets are playing at full strength.
Injury misfortune aside, it was quite a season. So good that just 29 days ago, Karl tweeted this message:
That was his last tweet until today: